Four misconceptions about slavery

10 August 2016

Our director Aidan McQuade on BBC Three and the sensationalist myths of modern-day slavery

photo of a field growing vegetables to illustrate modern slavery today

BBC Three’s broadcasting reached a new low today, with ‘Making a Slave,’ a reality TV style show in which four ‘volunteers’ spend 24 hours as modern slaves. The three-part series – sensationalist and simplistic throughout – reaffirms many commonly held misconceptions about slavery today.

Putting aside how inappropriate it is to turn slavery into some kind of reality TV show, it’s time to look at some of the common perceptions and set the record straight on the reality of modern day slavery.

Perception: Most slaves are controlled by organised criminal gangs.

Reality: Gangs are involved in human trafficking, but forms of forced labour are often perpetrated by employers who just use the vulnerability of their victims, who are, in the UK, mostly migrants. Slavery also happens through one-on-one relationships or through extended ‘families’, within the confines of the home, as cleaners, nannies, cooks and childminders. Many victims are UK nationals.

Perception: Anyone can become a modern slave.

Reality: In practice, poor and vulnerable migrants are most likely to fall into slavery. Poverty or discrimination forces them to look for a job in Britain, accept an offer from an informal agent, only to find out in Britain that the promised conditions don’t exist. But, without the language, knowledge of their rights or any support networks they have nowhere to go. In the case of British victims, homeless people are often targeted, who can fall for false promises of place to stay and decent pay. An educated British person with a stable income has very little chance of falling into slavery.

Perception: Constant, extreme and physical violence is ever-present.

Reality: Abuse can often be psychological. In many cases the victims of modern slavery are not physically restrained from leaving their employers or traffickers. Because they are in a place that is completely foreign to them, they don’t know anyone to turn to for help and nowhere to go. They often fear the authorities and the threat of deportation; their families rely on the little money they might receive from their employers, so it is difficult to leave into the unknown. Threats and violence are often only part of the picture.

Perception: Once it’s all over, you get on with your normal life and routine, as seen in the BBC Three series.

Reality: Victims of trafficking and slavery are highly traumatised and require urgent care and support, which the government often fails to provide. Some victims of slavery have had to wait 7 months for the UK Home office to decide whether they are victims of slavery – while up to 35% of victims of slavery are estimated to be re-trafficked. If workers entered the UK illegally, they are taken to immigration detention centres and treated as criminals.

Some people praise BBC Three for raising awareness of modern slavery, but the series actually distorts the reality, perpetuating a simplistic understanding of slavery.

The root causes of modern slavery are complex and varied, from poverty to inequality to discrimination. The causes of modern slavery are deeply linked to the world’s biggest social problems.

Prosecuting the villains won’t solve the problem: like an overgrown garden, the weed that is slavery will keep popping up if the root causes aren’t addressed.

Follow Aidan on Twitter @the_mcquade